Holly Mitchell’s historic election to the first ever all-woman Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors left a vacancy in a key state senate district, and a special election to fill her seat is approaching on March 2. The race is for California’s 30th State Senate District, which includes Culver City, Ladera Heights, Westmont, Crenshaw, Florence, and the bulk of downtown L.A. Mitchell has endorsed her former district deputy, current assembly member Sydney Kamlager, but several other candidates have thrown their hats into the ring. Among them is Vice Mayor of Culver City, Daniel Lee, who in 2018 became the first Black member of the Culver City Council in its over 100-year history. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force and California Air National Guard, Lee also has a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA and is a doctoral candidate at USC. Lee spoke with Los Angeles about his campaign and his plans for District 30. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA and you’re a doctoral candidate at USC—which bodes well for working across the aisle, right? I wanted to ask you about how that background informs your work. In an interview you did last year with Laura Abrams of UCLA Luskin’s Social Welfare Department, you likened the role of public officials to that of “macro-social work.” Can you explain that approach, how it works at the city council level, and how you would implement that in the State Senate?
I think a lot of public service by elected officials, if it’s done the right way in my opinion, is all about service delivery. It’s like your constituent has a need, you fulfill it. Or you’re connecting them with the type of resource or department that can fulfill it. On a macro level and even on a micro level, that’s what a lot of social workers do when it comes to case management. I think that that is a value that’s not exactly central to the role, but I think it’s a complementary thing to passing policy that would actually make it so.
The coronavirus pandemic has grossly impacted the way we live our lives, but particularly the lives in California Senate District 30. It’s one of L.A.’s last remaining historic Black enclaves, and has a Latinx population of about 50 percent. But the neighborhoods in the district are also home to some of the highest coronavirus case and death rates in the county. What’s your strategy for addressing this health-care crisis?
A big part of our campaign is we feel that we need to finally bring single-payer to California. A lot of people don’t access health care even if they have insurance because of the related cost. And there is a lot of rationalization that goes on that makes people say, “Well, I got this, but it’s not that bad. I need to go to work. If I skip these three days because I’m sick, I might not be able to make my rent.” I think we need to eliminate that type of negotiation so that people so that when people are sick, they go to the doctor. So that when people are in need or possibly developing a more serious condition that could be stopped if they got treatment earlier, they can see a medical professional and save money for them and the entire medical system.
“A big part of our campaign is we feel that we need to finally bring single-payer [health care] to California.”
Many essential workers live in Senate District 30, and many of them have seen COVID outbreaks at their workplaces. Residents feel forced to make a kind of Sophie’s Choice of putting themselves and their families at risk of the virus or not having enough to provide. How would you address the need for people to work, and create safe working spaces, with the necessity of isolation for fighting the virus?
I think there are steps that the governor and the legislature could take with our unexpected budget surplus this year. The [funds] could be used to make sure that when an essential worker—which are more likely to be low income, more likely to be Black and brown and more likely to be female—to provide greater avenues for paid leave once they actually get sick, and extend the amount of paid leave that is available for the duration of this pandemic, because it is unfair for them to both have to work at their normal capacity, and in far too many situations have to be almost a guard or a police officer when it comes to people who come into their place of business who don’t want to wear a mask or who don’t want to physically distance. We pay them substandard as it is. I don’t think we need to pay people more so they die for us.
Parents are concerned about getting their children back to school. In Senate District 30, teachers have reported high instances of learning loss and poor grades, oftentimes because students don’t have access to devices that allow them to connect to class. What can be done to address the digital divide, and ensure access to quality schooling post-pandemic?
The real issue is internet access. And a lot of people only have Internet access either on their phones or at school, particularly in poorer, working-class families. I’d love to talk to people within [Los Angeles Unified] and other school districts to see if there are demonstrated savings from the fact that many of these buildings are not being utilized, in particular the fact that electricity is not being used. In some cases, gas isn’t being used. Is there a way to transfer those savings to purchase things like hotspots? Is there a way to set up outdoor areas in some of these same schools with dedicated hotspots where people can go, kids in particular, and do their instruction in the physically distant way from a developmental perspective? The younger kids in particular, their biopsychosocial development is being impaired at the current moment.
While crime on the whole has decreased during the pandemic, we have seen a surge in violent crime, particularly gun violence among gang associates and the unhoused. In 2020, there were 15 homicides in the tiny neighborhood of Westmont alone. From your perspective, what is driving this violence, and how can it be solved and stopped?
I do believe very, very, very strongly that the best way to address violence in Westmont and very many other areas is to address poverty. I think a lot of the violence that we see, particularly among gangs, is a result of poverty and a result of a lack of resources and a lack of opportunity. I think also there are two things: in the 30th District in particular, we have a very large concentration of foster kids and a very large concentration of formerly incarcerated individuals. I think part of the violence is due to the fact that a number of these and formerly incarcerated individuals do not have the type of support that will let them survive on the outside. Proposition 47 took us in the right direction when it comes to expunging certain felonies from people’s records if they are nonviolent felonies. But very generally, there are all of these different barriers to housing, to employment, access to some of the social services that we provide in California that they don’t have access to. So in some ways, a lot of people don’t have a choice but to compete on the black market for resources. And a lot of times that involves violence. I think a real solution there is to have active poverty alleviation programs. And, you know, if we can do that in a short-term manner that provides people with the resources that they need, I think we would see a precipitous drop in crime.
There’s already an incredible need for housing throughout the state, and our unhoused population has continued to climb. The pandemic has brought on a new wave of housing insecurity, and some experts have predicted a tidal wave of evictions once protections expire. What is your plan to keep people in their houses and banks satisfied?
I think what we really need to do is cancel rent and cancel mortgages for a certain duration. If we can pass these gargantuan tax cuts on the federal level, then we can pass the people’s cut that allows people to stay in their homes, whether they are renters or paying a monthly mortgage. The federal government can pay that mortgage to banks. I personally am less concerned about the banks and more concerned about renters and homeowners.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who previously held this seat, has endorsed Sydney Kamlager, her former district director. What sets you apart from your opponent?
I think a lot of it is really based on some of the action that Sydney has taken in the assembly, particularly around housing. She hasn’t been there as a champion for strengthening renters’ rights. And she actually voted against a number of bills that would have done so. I think a very, very large distinction beyond housing is the fact that I am wholeheartedly, full throated in favor of pushing California to be the first state to bring actual single-payer health care to our residents.
Many of the reforms you are proposing have come up in the state legislature in some form or another, and even you yourself have said that there just wasn’t the energy to pass some of these measures. If you are elected, what do you think will make it possible this time?
I think the difference now is that in the past, people in the Assembly and the Senate would hear from those of us who have always thought health care should be a human right. Now they’ll be hearing it from people that they agree with on more centrist issues, people who donate to them on a regular basis. There is a financial imperative around every decision that, you know, a lot of assembly members and state senators make. I think if we can demonstrate from an organizing perspective—I still think of myself as more of an organizer than an elected official—if we can sufficiently let them know, “We’ve got your back. Our constituents very generally have your back. We will reelect you. And in fact, if you don’t vote or loudly advocate for this, we will not reelect you.” That’s where me and other single payer health care advocates and actually a pretty large percentage of Democratic Party delegates are heading, to make support or not support of single-payer a condition for election.
Daniel Lee, Sydney Kamlager, and Cheryl Turner will appear at a debate hosted by the New Frontier Democratic Club on Sunday, January 17.
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